Markers in the wilderness

RCL Year A, 2 Lent

I’ll begin with a story I told the Lenten class on Wednesday night:

‘Help us to find God,’ the disciples asked the elder.

‘No one can help you do that,’ the elder said.

‘Why not?’ the disciples asked, amazed.

‘For the same reason that no one can help fish to find the ocean.’

Hold onto that for a moment. First, I want to look at that all-too-short first reading we heard from Genesis. Therein is the beginning of a whole new relationship between God and people. God calls Abram, picks him out of all the people in the world, and asks him to go, to leave everything he knows and all those who have known him, and to move to a whole new land. To move to a whole new land not so that life would be better for him and his family, necessarily – but to move so that he and his descendants could become a blessing for the whole world. And Abram and his wife Sarai go, without a word.

But a few verses further on we get a little more sense of their feelings about this upheaval in their lives. They travel on to Canaan, and God appears to them again to say, this is the land I will give to you. So they build an altar there. Then they travel further on to Bethel and stay there a bit. And they build an altar there. And then they keep going, traveling on to Egypt and beyond in search of a place to stay. Building altars all the way.

Those altars, you see, are a kind of lifeline for Abram and Sarai. God has turned up and talked to them and given them a mission, and now they’re off in the wilderness, away from everything and everybody they knew. And they wonder: Is the god who spoke to us back home still with us? Let’s build an altar to him and make sure he is. And then they travel further on. Is he still here? Let’s build another altar and make sure. Every altar is a way of tying their god to themselves, like building a space station before voyaging further out – making sure that local god of home is still there, that they can still count on him. Only gradually do they begin to realize, after several more encounters with God inviting them to look at the enormity of the land before them, the vast number of the stars above them, that God is everywhere. Not local to a particular place or set of people, but greater than everything and everywhere. The Spirit blows where it will, beyond anything they can tie down and understand.

But the instinct to pin things down is strong in humans. Thousands of years later, there is Nicodemus, stealthy and hiding and visiting Jesus under cover of darkness. Hey, psst, Jesus, you there! I know – we know – that you’re from God, because we’ve seen the evidence. We’ve seen you do these signs, proof to us that you’re something real. I’m not entirely sure, but I’m pretty sure, that you’re it – and if you prove it just a little further, do a sure sign or two, we’ll anoint you Messiah, build you an altar, and publicize to everyone who you are.

But Jesus doesn’t applaud Nicodemus for his faith – you saw the signs and deduced the truth, good for you. Instead he offers a kind of rebuke: you can’t see all there is to see, the kingdom of God, until you’re born of the Spirit. You need to move away from what you can prove and understand and hold onto. That is what faith really is. The Spirit blows where it will, through you and around you. Until you allow that unknown to happen, you will never see. Stop trying to build altars, Nicodemus, and let go.

Nicodemus is mystified. And no wonder. He is only doing what Abram did, what anyone does in trying to comprehend the vastness of God and the world. He’s starting with what he can observe and verify, setting up a marker in a journey that can feel a lot like just wandering around. He wants a touchstone, a cairn that will stand and show the way. I may not know where I am going, but I at least know where I am right now – and I’ve built a pile of rocks to show it.

If you’ve ever tried to follow a trail in the wilderness, you know the value of those piles of rocks. In the East they paint colored blazes on the trees – follow the blue marks and you won’t get lost. In the West, and up above treeline, they put piles of rocks, cairns, that mark the path. You find the blaze or the cairn and you’re reassured that you’re on the trail. And then you stand still and peer off into the distance, trying to determine where the next one is, which way you’re supposed to move. But move you must, even when you can’t quite tell where the next one is – you’re not out there just to stand still, the sun is going down and you’ve got to get to camp. The cairns are important. But they’re not meant as places to stay at.

But sometimes, like Nicodemus, we have a hard time moving on. This is something I know. This is something I understand. And so we stay there, sometimes so long that we get stuck. Have you ever known someone who seemed stuck? Have you ever felt that way yourself? Think of the perpetual student, the one who finishes college, and not knowing what to do next, goes back to graduate school, without really knowing why. They found meaning and structure in school, and they aren’t sure where to find it next. It happens in the church too: I had several friends through youth and young adult ministries when I was young myself, people who found community and meaning in youth conferences and retreats and camps – so much so that they just kind of stayed there, age 25, 26, 27, still circling back to the same places where they had once found God long after others their age had moved on to other things. And maybe we can all think of people who stay too long in a job that no longer has any purpose or joy to it, simply because it is what they know – maybe we’ve been that person ourselves.

We can get stuck, in life and in our life with God. This is the way I understood God once; this is the way I experienced God once. And we try to come back to that, over and over again, even when doubts and questions have arisen in our minds to make that image of God troubling, even when no feeling is left, even when we can’t articulate anything of what it once meant to us. We’re too afraid to let go.

But we never grow unless we do let go. We never grow until we allow our images of God to be blown up and replaced by something bigger. Until we allow that God is not only in this one place or to be experienced in this one way – but bigger than that, more surprising than that, all around us like the ocean surrounds the fish.

As we live this journey – this pilgrimage of Lent, this larger journey of faith, the journey that simply is about getting older day by day – we have to let go. Know where our touchstones are, yes; understand our path and our journey thus far, definitely; but move forward nonetheless. Moving forward into the unknown and wilderness, but moving forward too into a place where we know already the Spirit also is. There is no place we can go apart from God’s Spirit. There is no place where God is not. There is no place, therefore, where we should be afraid. God is here.